Anthony Gordon Lennox, one year on…
Anthony Gordon Lennox, our founder and dear friend, known to us as Ant, died a little before midnight, on 7th October 2017. He was 48. One year on, we asked Tom Stuttaford to share a few of his thoughts and memories about Ant’s work at AGL.
Most people, even most communications consultants, fight a tad shy of addressing life’s larger, scarier, more metaphysical side, at least in a professional setting.
Ant was the polar opposite.
He was a practical man; in essence, pretty down to earth; and, critically, a realist about human nature; indeed, one whose obvious relish for the comedy of la comédie humaine was a constant delight: the naughty chuckle; the devilish gleam in the eye; the histrionic sighs of exaggeratedly weary resignation; the flush of vicarious or voyeuristic pleasure at some folly, foible or peccadillo; the sudden, theatrical candour about this person or that person; the pet dog named Humbug…
However, he was also another, very different, kind of man: an enthusiast for romantic poetry; who knew by heart a frighteningly fat chunk of Hymns Ancient and Modern; and, for all his jovial cynicism, who liked little better than thinking and talking about the big and bigger questions of society, civilisation and existence.
In his work, of course, he thought and talked, in particular, about the purpose, meaning and legacy of the lives of his clients, not many of whom escaped his clutches without having to grapple with a question or two such as these: When you leave this organisation, what do you want people to say about you? And what about when you retire? And as you lie upon your deathbed, and remember, what do you want it all to have meant? Family and friendships aside, what difference will your life have made, or would you like it to have made, to the world around you? What did you stand for, do you think? Or stand up for? What made you interesting? Did you ever actually succeed in becoming yourself?
Legacy was a concept that mattered to him; and a year after his death, it seems right not simply to remember him but also to reflect a little upon his own legacy, as it appears to us at AGL: the company of which he was the founder and, de facto if not de jure, always the undisputed leader.
Ant was a brave man: a brave equestrian, a brave amateur actor and a brave businessman; and when he knew just what he was up against, diagnostically speaking, which we didn’t, brave enough to carry on laughing, joking, gossiping and planning for the future over coffee and kippers with colleagues.
But he was good, too, at instilling bravery in others. People left his sessions feeling bigger, better and braver than when they walked in; and readier – as leaders, strategists, communicators, human beings… – to do things differently, to surprise, finally to be themselves.
It helped that he had a rare talent for inspiring trust and building personal rapport. He never really planned his sessions, preferring – let’s be generous – to keep things spontaneous; but often, he would begin in chatty, and quite often confessional, mode: with a personal or professional problem of his own, perhaps; or maybe some wildly self-deprecatory tale of woe and personal humiliation; or it might be a political insider’s take on politics; or just something in the news, preferably something a bit mad. And then, out of nowhere, and yet how natural it always seemed, it would be, “Why do you want the responsibility? Most people don’t. I don’t. Why in heaven’s name do you…?”; or “Talk to me about your four o’clock worries…”. And believe me, they talked; and as they talked, he listened, riveted and with obvious sympathy; and it was because they talked with such freedom that he was able to guide and advise them as he did; and, above all, help them find their voice.
When you speak your truth, tell your story, it feels brilliant. Better than anything else
There was precious little science in any of it but art there was a-plenty; and intuition, empathy and experience; and incredibly good sense; and for most, it worked. There was honesty, too: not just in his advice but also, whoever you were, in his willingness to say so, if he couldn’t help you; or felt he had reached the end of the road.
Occasionally, client conversations became the stuff of carefully anonymised but much repeated anecdote. “When you wake up in the morning, what’s your first thought about the day ahead?”, he asked a titan of industry, now retired, who became one of our supporters-in-chief: it was a standard question. “It’s always the same,” came the unhesitating reply. “Today’s the day I’m going to be found out.” Ant loved moments like that and loved recounting them: loved them for their drama, their truth and their humanity.
He loved them, too, for another, more personal reason: for the echo he found in them of his own insecurities and vulnerabilities. Would Ant have been as good as he was at getting to the heart of his clients and their lives, and enabling them to see and realise their potential, had he himself been a granite tower of unshakeable self-belief, rather than the person he was: a lovable mishmash of verve and self-doubt, deep conviction and self-questioning, personal authority and self-criticism? I think not; and that the vast majority of his clients, and absolutely all his colleagues, would say the same.
There was also his warm and wonderful energy. “Communication is a high energy business,” he used politely but firmly to remind clients when they started to flag, in the middle of rehearsal number three, four, five or six; and his own energy was key to the success of his sessions. Even his exhaustion had a kind of flamboyant energy to it.
Ant, you see, considered it an important part of his role to stretch and challenge his clients’ thinking: to get them thinking fundamentally, conceptually, creatively about their work, their organisations, their sectors of activity. If you were a banker, he would shift the conversation on to the place of money in society; and what it meant to be a banker in contemporary Britain; and in control of so much money and so many lives. If you were any kind of business leader, he would invariably soon be taking you off in an existential direction: “The world is changing. No company has a God-given right to exist. Why should yours in five years time?”. It was because of the energy he gave to these exchanges that they worked as they did.
It was an energy that energised but above all relaxed and liberated: that made it possible to think, to dream, to share, to express anything. To say that these discussions could be freewheeling is an understatement. At times, they developed a distinct brain-on-fire quality. However, they did invariably produce results: sometimes, whole narratives; sometimes, those one or two exceptional, even inspirational, ideas that get jotted down, with a serious nod, in the client’s notebook; and modify or transform the way things are said or done.
So, what is Ant’s professional legacy?
Well, of course, he touched countless lives: those of his clients and, indirectly, those of the people, companies and organisations they led. He touched them and he changed them for the better, often radically.
Sometimes his transformational power astounded even him. I recall a “goals and values” session with a much loved “regular”, not long before he fell ill. The change Ant had wrought in him was so remarkable as to be sort of funny. Gone were the modest horizons and muddled ambitions, and hesitations and uncertainties, of the man we had first met a few years earlier. And in their place were confidence, clarity of both vision and expression, and an almost kingly air. “My God, Tom,” said Ant, laughingly, during a break, “What have we done?”
And then there is his most conspicuous individual legacy, AGL itself: the child of which he was so very proud; that gave him so much fun; and that, for good or ill – later, he wished he’d called it What Are You Like? – shared his initials. It’s changed here and there since his death but only in ways he very much wanted it to; or would have, had he been around to ask. Our new “Special Advisory” division was his idea, for example; and so, too, was its Board of Ambassadors, a remarkable assemblage of distinguished men and women, from varied walks of life, all of whom knew Ant, personally.
Meanwhile, we’re still in rude health; the old team – his team – is still present and correct; and, above all – above all… – we still enshrine Ant’s three most dearly held values: authenticity, authenticity and authenticity. As a client put it to me last month, we’re still the people who ask not, or not first and foremost, “What are your goals?” but “Who are you?”.
At an internal gathering, five or so years ago, I remember Ant saying, cheekily but truthfully, and with a wryly apologetic smile, “One way or another, and in your admittedly very different ways, you’re all versions of me.”.
Would he say the same today?
I’m sure of it; and with the same smile, too; and probably also a bit of leg-twitching and some nervous throat-clearing.
Will he still be able to say the same in five years time?
I’m almost sure of it.
He was and remains an inspiration; and for those lucky enough to have worked with him, will continue to be so, long into the future.